Tomorrow is the first day of April, better known as April Fools’ Day. Well-renowned for its legendary pranks, I can only hope this April Fools’ will not bring another joke announcement from University of Connecticut administrators that the school’s mask mandate is extending into the final month of the semester.
That’s right, I am calling for the end of formal COVID-19 restrictions at UConn.
I understand the administration has no control over masking requirements at UConn Health or on public transportation — at least until the TSA mandate expires on April 18. But given recent trends, I have reason to believe that maybe, just maybe, Lucy will let us kick the football this time.
Let’s back up. I first publicly called for the easing of COVID restrictions last October, in an article that received plenty of attention and criticism. Though my example of holding Boris Johnson on a political pedestal has aged rather poorly (Partygate, anyone?), I still stand by the article’s main conclusions: Mask mandates and other restrictions in the post-vaccine era are (a) based more in politics than science and (b) disrupt the fundamental social experiences all college students should enjoy.
Of course, much has changed since October. Over winter break, the rise of the more contagious but less severe Omicron variant shattered daily case records across the country. Fortunately, hospitals were not overwhelmed to the same levels as during the respective Alpha and Delta surges of December 2020 and July 2021. Both higher vaccination rates and more widespread natural immunity helped contain the Omicron wave.
At UConn, Omicron announced its arrival through a chaotic leak we all remember on Dec. 30, 2021. This leak was confirmed by the university hours later, and the spring 2022 semester was suddenly going to begin online. Since students returned to campus in Code Red at the end of January, the number of simultaneous cases has remained relatively stable in the double-digits.
This situation led UConn to swap Code Red for Code Orange on Feb. 11, just as Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont announced the state would no longer mandate masks in schools at the end of that month. Two weeks later, updated CDC guidance declared Tolland County a “low transmission” area and dropped all indoor mask recommendations, and the town of Mansfield lifted its mask mandate. As March rolled in, the question was on everyone’s mind: Would UConn remain committed to following federal, state and local guidelines by switching to Code Yellow?
The answer from Storrs: A resounding “bleh.” Effective March 4, the mandate was lifted for “nearly all” campus settings, but masks were, and still are, required in classrooms and labs through at least tomorrow, April 1. In other words, not Code Orange, but not fully Code Yellow either. Pro-mandate students were mildly annoyed the restrictions loosened, while anti-mandate students were mildly annoyed the school didn’t go a step further and eliminate masks entirely. The only people who felt strongly about this were the dreaded Babbidge Library mask enforcers, apparently dismayed at the expiration of their 15 minutes of fame.
Reports of “mask police” in the library were all the rage among UConn Redditors earlier this semester, and the practice is reflective of a broader UConn trend recently: Inconsistent COVID-19 restriction enforcement. Such enforcement seems best summarized as, “Do enough to keep NBC Connecticut off our back, but don’t do too much so FOX 61 stays quiet.”
Even before March 4, some lecturers simply let non-compliers go unchecked, while others publicly kicked their maskless students out of class. This inconsistency has only worsened as change to government policy at all levels has emboldened students to attend lectures without masks, even in violation of current guidelines.
Furthermore, the mask mandate was not uniformly enforced in the student section of Gampel Pavilion before it was dropped in early March. This could have led to several undetected spikes after home basketball games, as I doubt anyone was getting tested before heading back to their dorms and further socializing with those not at the game. On the library issue, masks are only required in certain areas, such as class instruction rooms and tutoring centers. At this point in the pandemic, these inconsistencies only serve to uphold an illusion incompatible with how the majority of college students — who are generally at low risk of serious illness or hospitalization from COVID — are living their lives.
While I have been critical of the university thus far, I do understand its decision to keep some form of a mask mandate after March 4 for one reason: spring break. Because UConn’s spring break came a week later than breaks at most other large colleges, the potential for students to travel, contract the virus and spread it wildly would be really terrible PR without the mandate. Lifting the mandate would also shift the community’s attitude toward masks on campus, thus making it harder to reinstate in the event of a post-break COVID spike.
Despite this reasoning, the anticipated spring break superspreader spike has not happened. On Thursday, March 24, the university reported a whopping 11 COVID cases — its lowest total since Feb. 10, one day before the Red to Orange transition. To which I previously alluded, the number of simultaneous COVID cases never exceeded 70 (out of more than 10,000 campus residents) this semester and has not been close to that amount in an entire month. This fact should serve as evidence that the restrictions, which are designed to limit — not reduce, as they have done over a longer period — the spread of COVID, have become more stringent and cumbersome than intended.
So what to do? As the university arbitrarily interpreted the meaning of its Code “Yellow” guidelines upon switching from Orange four weeks ago, I will not propose switching to another meaningless color. However, any move to true Code Yellow, Code Green or something in between raises two important questions.
One, the issue of professors, who are older and thus more at risk of contracting the virus than students. Is it fair to professors’ health to forgo masks in classrooms? I believe it is, as the nature of them sitting far away from students significantly decreases an instructor’s chance of catching COVID. Those instructors who feel particularly cautious can wear N95 or KN95 masks, which better protect against others who may be transmitting the virus than traditional surgical masks.
Two, on the rise of the BA.2 variant, which on Tuesday became the dominant COVID variant in America. Should the rise of this Omicron subvariant make us reconsider loosening restrictions? I believe not; despite its prevalence, BA.2 is not contributing to a spike in the number of total cases — in Connecticut or nationally. The variant’s overall mildness and limited strain on European hospitals suggest that BA.2 will not become the Delta to Omicron’s Alpha.[Text Wrapping Break][Text Wrapping Break]At this point in the pandemic, our campus policies should reflect the very limited threat COVID-19 poses to college students — many of whom have already contracted it in the last two years. Tomorrow, I call upon UConn to recognize this reality by lifting its mask mandate and understanding that the cure cannot be worse than the disease.